A single dose of hallucinogenic drug psilocybin may relieve cancer sufferers from anxiety and depressive symptoms, scientists have found out. The compound, which is naturally found in 'magic mushrooms', improved patients' quality of life and lifted their spirits.
Receiving a life-threatening cancer diagnosis can take a toll on people's mental health. There is no evidence to date that stress and poor psychological health directly impact cancer outcomes, but some studies have shown patients often go on to develop a sense of hopelessness when anxiety and fear of death becomes overwhelming. This may in some cases weaken their resolve to fight off the disease. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network estimates that 40% of people with cancer suffer from a mood disorder.
"A life-threatening cancer diagnosis can be psychologically challenging, with anxiety and depression as very common symptoms. People with this kind of existential anxiety often feel hopeless and are worried about the meaning of life and what happens upon death", says study author Roland Griffiths.
In previous research, he and his colleagues at John Hopkins University School of Medicine had tested psilocybin on healthy volunteers, and had discovered that the drug – when administered in strictly controlled lab settings - could positively transform the way people behaved and thought about the world. It induced positive mood changes.
In this new study, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, the scientists wanted to test whether similar effects could be reported in cancer patients, who have an even greater need to see their moods improve.
The small double-blind study involved 51 participants, both men and women, diagnosed with life-threatening cancers, most of which were recurrent or metastatic. They were divided into two groups: one received a very low psilocybin dose meant to act as a "control" placebo, because the dose was too low to produce effects. The other received a high dose of the drug.
The high dose of psilocybin decreased clinically diagnosed and self-reported feelings of depression, anxiety and fear of death, while increasing quality of life and optimism. Strangely, these effects lasted six months after treatment, even though the drug's effects typically only last a few hours.
"The most interesting and remarkable finding is that a single dose of psilocybin, which lasts four to six hours, produced enduring decreases in depression and anxiety symptoms, and this may represent a fascinating new model for treating some psychiatric conditions", Griffiths says.
The data indicates that 80% of participants continued to show clinically significant decreases in depressed mood and anxiety six months after receiving the single dose of drug – 60% in fact showed symptom remission into the normal range. 67% rated the experience as one of the top five meaningful experiences in their lives, and about 70% said taking the drug had been one of their top five spiritually significant moments.
It is important to note that these findings were obtained in strictly controlled scientific settings, with the researchers carefully screening and monitoring the participants throughout the experiment, and providing reassurance when they expressed confusion. Taking hallucinogenic drugs to reduce psychological suffering associated with cancer in any other context is not recommended.
More research will be needed to test the effects of psilocybin on a greater number of individuals, but these first results clearly suggest that it can contribute to helping cancer patients on the long term. It may also provide new insights to develop drugs to treat depression and anxiety disorders.